Speaking In Tongues
Guided by Voices

Elena Shakhovtseva

Institute for Foreign Languages
Far Eastern National University
Vladivostok, Russia

The Gothic in the Black South Novels of Tina McElroy Ansa
(Baby of the Family and The Hand I Fan With)

«But why there must be no ghosts?
How should we know that something is
Carl Gustav Jung

There exists a problem of defining contemporary African American women's fiction in terms of Southern literary tradition. For a long time, Southern literature has been associated with white Southern writers while African American fiction has been considered a separate zone. Not until recently, the issues connected with Southern African American literature have become relevant for contemporary literary criticism. Nowadays "the "Southernness" of African American literature is a topic of central concern not only for Southern studies but for American culture generally" (Southern Writers at Century's End, 4). It is clearly so because "African American fiction retains "quintessential" Southern and even "agrarian" qualities. For the African American Southerner,… the writing of fiction reflects…an intimacy with the land, an identification with nature and the physical environment, an emphasis on the necessity of an extended family and a supportive community, and a legacy of struggle against social oppression and a consequent immersion in history"(Southern Writers at Century's End, 5).
Among many distinguished African American authors of today (Toni Morrison, Gloria Naylor, Alice Walker, to name just a few), some new and identically Southern voices are emerging, Tina McElroy Ansa being among them. As a critic rightfully assumes, Ansa's novels "place her squarely in the tradition of Southern writers such as Eudora Welty, Flannery O'Connor, and Ansa's role model, Zora Neale Hurston"(Contemporary Southern Writers, 12). Among her clearly Southern themes there are such as the interrelation of past and present, the importance of roots, family ties, and gender roles in black communities. The writer also shares her predecessors' special sense of place - in Ansa's case it is a fictional small town of Mulberry in Georgia. Equally Southern are Ansa'a characters, most of whom are depicted with compassion and humor inherent in Southern tradition. Ansa's writing fits neatly into African American tradition as well. It powerfully employs Black idiom. Her novels are full of natural power, magic, music (predominantly blues, especially in The Hand I Fan With), conjuring forces, spirits, and ghosts which connects her fiction with that of Zora Neal Hurston, Toni Morrison, Gloria Naylor, and of course with a broader tradition of African American culture and art. Ansa's writing has a distinctive feminist aspect, too, in admitting gender differences and assuming that women's "differences" are special and should be celebrated.
A postmodern critic seems to be doomed to read and interpret any modern text as an intertextual discourse, or intertext. It does not matter if an author may or may not intently include in his or her text literary allusions, more or less necessarily they can not but evoke certain literary and cultural reminiscences. In Ansa's case, in addition to Southern and African American traditions, some Gothic features (both classical European and Southern) can be found in her novels. So, "multiculturedness" of contemporary American literature could be understood not only in terms of race, ethnicity, and class, but also could be considered a fusion of various cultural and literary canons, a kind of cultural syncretism. Thus, it would be not enough to place Tina Ansa's novels in Southern and African American traditions only. Her art is a blend of European as well as African cultural traditions. Particularly African cultural heritage creates "a vision of the universe that was based on hope and affirmation …" (Conclin, 78). And, as it is rather common in modern fiction, the writer both continues and challenges literary canons and cultural idioms.
Reading Ansa's novels, one seems to be constantly aware of this persistent juxtaposition of traditions and cultures. For example, considering strong spiritual and "natural" elements and symbols in her novels' plots (eroticism being a form of the natural attitudes, especially in the second novel), a reader (especially well-read in European philosophy and psychology) might be tempted to connect them with Freud's or Jung's conceptions (of archetypes, subconscious, etc.). However, Ansa's common readers could be hardly suspected of profound knowledge of European psychoanalysis to draw such analogy. Instead, the motives of open sexuality and high spirituality would most likely arouse readers' reminiscences of blues culture. Into this, themes of love, passion, spirituality and erotic sensations fit perfectly.
Similarly, the Gothic features of Ansa'a texts (ghosts, "scary" sensations, mysterious places, etc.) may connect them with European Gothic tradition of early Romanticism of the 19th century, but these same features could be easily interpreted within another cultural context - that of African and African American folklore (woodo, etc.) where conjuring, magic power of certain rituals, ghosts and spirits interfering in people's life are as much common. Besides, some tragic events in people's lives (death and other misfortunes and sufferings) that are inherent in Southern Gothic, add still another dimension to Ansa's writing. Altogether, these characteristics allow to place the writer's fiction in so called magic realism tradition as well.
I'd like to consider some specifically Gothic features of Ansa's novels more carefully now.
The "Gothic", as it is commonly recognized, is usually associated with certain motifs, themes, and images. I would name just a few of them which are mentioned, among other features, by Sergey Zenkin, a Russian scholar. Zenkin considers that the most significant of all Gothic characteristics is what he calls "inoprostranstvo", or "another, alter space", a magic reality. It is a most specific Gothic "neverland", a kind of esoteric terrain. Among typically Gothic motifs the scholar also names a motif of "alter ego", a person's double, a theme of so called "infernal marriage", and of course, images of spirits and ghosts.
The most evident of all Gothic features is the presence of spirits and ghosts which are mostly "scary" and "evil" creatures by definition. Lena McPherson is the main character in two of Ansa's novels, Baby of the Family, 1989, and The Hand I Fan With, 1996. She is "a mighty special child" (Baby, 1) because she was born with a caul over her face. This, people believe, makes Lena lucky, but also allows her to communicate with ghosts and spirits. Because her mother, Nellie, would not listen to old Nurse Bloom and perform some necessary rituals, all spirits were set loose and started to scare Lena very early in her life. At first she tries to ignore her identity (her special "gifts") and the spirits haunting her all the time, but that leads only to emotional upheaval and regular breakdowns. Not until she becomes a grown up person she can reconcile with her special ability to see and hear spirits and get ready to recognize her own identity.
In Baby of the Family, Nurse Bloom explains to Lena's mother, "When people talk about ghosts, they usually think of dead people. It's just not that simple. Of course there are spirits of dead people that still wander the earth. But there are two kinds of ghosts, one is the peaceful and harmless kind that appear before you just the way they were on earth, natural-like, and they can be helpful, too. Then there's the other kind, and they can scare you plenty. Some of them look like death itself, some don't have any heads or any feet, or their heads are turned around on their shoulders" (Baby, 28-29). ". Of course, many of spirits that appear in Ansa's novels are really "scary", like Lena's baby aunt, long dead, who nearly drew little Lena into a portrait of hers (Baby). That was Lena's first "ghostly "experience. Ever since she had to deal with plenty of scary creatures that haunted her.
However, Ansa often ironically challenges this literary "necessity" of Gothic fiction. Sometimes, ghosts behave just like humans, having all sorts of feelings, like the ghost of Annabelle, Herman's "girl" in ghostly world, who is fussy and fiercely jealous as a real woman and even tries to harm Lena because of that (The Hand). In The Hand I Fan With, the central male protagonist is Herman, a ghost. He materialized as a consequence of Lena and Lena's friend Sister's conjuring ritual. The women meant to create, or rather to summon a man for Lena, but ironically, because they did not know the exact rules of the ritual, the latter turned out "incomplete" - and instead of a real man there appeared Herman, a ghost. It was a very fortunate "device" for the book, as Tina Ansa narrates in her Letter to her readers. She writes, "How perfect, I thought, how appropriate for an American love story at the end of the twentieth century to be as tenuous, as ephemeral, as insubstantial as trying to love a ghost" (Internet Interview, 1). Besides, not all spirits are "scary" and look like "death itself". Some of them are like human beings and do not harm Lena, but rather help her a lot (Rachel in Baby, Herman, Lena's mother and grandmother in The Hand ).
Ansa's novels are full of folklore, people's beliefs and rituals that are often considered "superstitions" in our civilized age. She really meant her books to contain all kind of such stuff, and that was far more than just an artistic device for creating a thrilling and intriguing plot. Tina Ansa in her work claimed the heritage of African American people saying, "We've got to acknowledge who we are as a people… We've got to stop jettisoning things that are important - whether it's the blues, what we call superstitions, our folklore…This is our stuff…"(Reader's Companion to The Hand I Fan With by Tina McElroy Ansa, 5). In the same interview describing her books she said, "[I wanted] to claim our sense of spirituality, our connection to Mother Earth. These are the things that got us through the horrors of the Middle Passage, delivered us to these shores, and got us through slavery and up into freedom. And to just throw these things over our shoulders, to discard them like so much trash, as Lena's mother did with her child's caul, is suicidal" (Reader's Companion, 5).
Nurse Bloom who embodies "Mother wit" of black community comments to the effect, "There's all kinds of things in this world that people call superstitions because they don't understand them or they don't fit neatly into their way of thinking nowadays, but that doesn't mean that these things are just some crazy mumbo-jumbo of ignorant country people" (Baby, 27). For Ansa, all this "mumbo-jumbo", or "crazy shit", as Nellie would put it, is precious memory of her people, and it belongs to history too. Significantly, history in Ansa's novels is introduced through the Gothic element, namely the characters of ghosts. Spirits that appear to communicate with Lena, are closely related to historical events, and they speak on behalf of the past, but in the name of the future. Rachel (Baby) had been a slave on the Georgia beach a hundred years ago, and she came to tell Lena her story in a mode of "slave narratives" of the nineteenth century. Herman (The Hand) had been "around", dead and alive, some 139 years before he was sent to take care of Lena. He had been born a free man, and he also told Lena his story in detail. Thus, the writer connects past and present finding a most unusual link for this purpose.
The very beginning of the first novel, Baby of the Family, introduces the "ghostly" motif. Even before we come to know about Lena's "special gift" (ability to see ghosts) the author connects the two worlds - "the supernatural" and "the real" - in the very first portrait of Lena as her mother sees her, "The veil over her daughter's face gave the little girl a ghostly appearance. Nellie almost expected her to rise from Dr. Williams's large rubber-gloved hands and float around the small steamy room like a newborn apparition"(Baby, 3). The writer juxtaposes the supernatural and the real worlds, and also good and evil, making the whole entity of them. Thus, Nellie sees her newborn daughter's face "as if draped there by a band of angels" (Baby, 3), and at the same time belonging to the world of ghosts. Also, she thinks, "arriving with a veil over her face, the child brought with her a touch of the supernatural into a place that owed so much to the scientific [the hospital]"(Baby, 3).
Despite many ghosts Ansa's fictional world seems quite real: her novels are richly textured with a lot of regional "local color" details of community life in rural Georgia. Yet, in these novels there exists another world - that of ghosts and spirits which is as real as the first one. It is not a totally "another" world, it is closely connected with people's everyday reality, introducing a broader and more complicated conception of the world. It seems to correspond with African [religious and cultural] traditions that "share a holistic perspective free of the rigid dichotomies between mind and body, humans and nature, individual and community, sacred and secular" (Conclin, 79). Interestingly, this rather complex conception of the world is inherent in Gothic tradition as well. Most unexpected parallels are put forward by Sergey Zenkin, who writes about the philosophic meaning of the Gothic novel as follows, "Bringing together some official forms of consciousness, some socially recognized cultural discourses and those rejected, forced out as unconscious complexes and archaic beliefs, Gothic fiction seems to probate the culture, to check whether it is able to resist its own subconscious or if it rather integrates this subconscious in the frame of some broader, wiser picture of the world" (Zenkin, 15).
So, ghosts and spirits are most important characters in both novels. They have their own life stories and play an important part in constructing the fictional reality of Ansa's "magical" texts. They are also extremely important for Lena's spiritual and emotional development, for her finding a self, and they become a part of her "education".
In Baby of the Family it is Rachel, a slave girl whom Lena meets on the Georgia beach when she is only seven. The breathtaking story of Rachel, who chose to die in the ocean tide because she did not want to be a "nothing" (Baby, 161). "That what it mean to be a slave - you ain't nothing" (Baby, 161), Rachel explains to Lena. Rachel's storytelling connects Ansa's novel with slave narratives, as it has been already mentioned. By this story, the author "[gives] voice to centuries …of silent bitterness…" (Conclin, 100). Not accidentally, Rachel is so persistent in telling Lena her story. The emphasis of Rachel's narration is on the fact that any person deserves to be "something else than a slave" (Baby, 163). Rachel also teaches Lena something very important when she says to the girl, "You belong anywhere on this earth you want to" (Baby, 168). For a long time it has been considered, as Lena's grandmother thinks, that "the beach was one place that was just for white folks, not for colored…" (Baby, 131-132), that black folks "did not belong" there. That is why Lena's grandmother feels so skeptical about the family's vacation at the beach and refuses to go with them. Rachel's words echo Alice Walker's phrase in her 1992 introduction to The Color Purple: "I see and hear you clearly, Great Mystery, now that I expect to see and hear you everywhere I am, which is the right place" (Walker A. The Color Purple, XII). Many years will pass after Lena's meeting with Rachel before she learns to be confident about her "place" in the world.
Another ghost, Herman, is one of the main characters in The Hand I Fan With. He is conjured up by Lena and her friend Sister and stays a year with Lena. As Ansa characterizes him in her interview, "Herman was perfect - a ghost, a spirit, a vapor of a man who could do anything earthly and unearthly, become any substance, hone himself into any shape …As a ghost, he could be any age, have any experience, have lived as a man and a spirit, and learned a few things in the process" (Reader's Companion, 2). This year with Herman becomes a crucial point in Lena's life. She is forty five, lonely (all her family members are dead), wealthy, and obsessed by charity. People in Mulberry take her for granted, as "the hand they fan with". With Herman, Lena becomes closer to the land and nature and learns a lot of things about herself. Ansa writes in her interview, "I wanted Lena to rediscover her roots, her culture, her land, her self, her past. And Herman, who was a part of Lena's cultural past, is her loving guide on this journey" (Reader's Companion, 2). Herman is Lena's friend, her lover, her teacher and preacher, her guardian angel. He is "her man", the most important person in her life, ironically so because he is a ghost. Herman is indeed a "prodigious presence" in the novel, because he may be so multifunctional.
Herman also introduces a Gothic theme of "infernal marriage". This kind of marriage reflects a "complex of archaic beliefs in which marriage and death are closely related" (Zenkin, 12). A person in Gothic fiction often is forced to marry a creature from "another world". In European Gothic tradition, "infernal marriage" is likely to be something terrible, nightmarish that ruins the protagonist's personality and identity and thus leads to his or her inevitable death.
In Ansa's novels, again, we see the writer challenging the canon. In The Hand, Herman comes to help Lena, to love and cherish her, not to harm or ruin her, which means that his functions in the plot, as well as his attitudes, are most positive for Lena, though Herman leaves her to her total dismay in the end. Similarly, other "infernal creatures" may be very positive too. Those who might have been shortsighted (Lena's mother who had disposed of Lena's caul) or not very wise (Lena's grandmama who told Lena that she could not afford to be "crazy" and had always to confine to her role in family and society) when they used to be humans, in their "ghostly" appearance obtained wisdom. In the novel's finale, the "family of ghosts" (The Hand, 453) are all friendly, helpful, and wise in their attitudes. They appear at one of the most dramatic moments in Lena's life (chapter "Storm" which, by the way, evokes strong reminiscences of the famous "hurricane scene" in Hurston's novel). They bring Lena wisdom and peace among all natural turmoil. The author narrates, "It surprised [Lena] just how comfortable she was with all these ghosts appearing and disappearing around her. Some were family. Many were friends. A couple she did not recognize right off, but she was not a bit afraid of or confused by any of them. They all seemed to have a place" (The Hand, 451).
The Gothic interpretation of Ansa's novels may also be quite fruitful if we consider their specific chronotop, the entity of fictional time and space. Commonly, in classical Gothic novels Gothic space creates magical reality. It is often structured as a very special place of action - a castle, a tower, or a house - where attributes and rules of real life cease to exist for the protagonist. Once there, he or she loses control over reality and his or her self; a person is put a spell upon. This space is mysterious, prone to magical deformation, inhabited by strange and scary creatures, haunted. It is dark and terrifying because a person gets involved in something beyond common understanding and human will power.
There is this kind of Gothic space in Ansa's novels. There is something magical about Lena's family house in Mulberry. It is too big for Lena's family. It was originally built as a residence for teachers of a black private school which "had been razed years before Lena's birth" (Baby, 63). There's something strange about this house, too. It "didn't even look as if it belonged to the neighborhood" (Baby, 63), and it had "a mind of its own" (Baby, 63). It is in this house that Lena starts seeing ghosts. Later, in The Hand, this old house becomes a haunted place for Lena. She won't live in it and moves into her own place, by the river, probably because her childhood home reminds her of her lost family and her loneliness. In the end of the novel, though, the old house gains a new life paradoxically regenerating its old function: Lena opens an orphanage there, a shelter for "her kids" with "problems". Thus she can reconcile with her past and her special powers, help people without being manipulated. Also, in The Hand, this kind of Gothic space is represented by a secret room in "The Place", the McPhersons' family business, shop and juke-joint, where Herman used to live as a ghost before he was "summoned" to appear in Lena's life. The Gothic chronotop penetrates the real time and space of the novel and gives it a special "flavor" of mystery and magic as if communicating the thought that life is more complex than it appears.
However, the most important of all fictional spaces in Ansa'a novels is Lena's inner spiritual "space", or her spiritual reality. Of course, the protagonist exists within Mulberry's reality, she lives in it, actively participates in it, but she sees ghosts and feels what other people can not see or feel. It is her "special gift", her "esoteric" experience, her unique personality. In a way, both novels, Baby of the Family and The Hand I Fan With, can be qualified as a kind of quest novels, or Bildungsromans, because their real meaning is in Lena's "education". Her "sentimental journey", the process of finding a self, becomes a quest for identity. It is especially true concerning the first novel where Lena is young and constantly feels her "strangeness", her "otherness". She doesn't understand who she is and why she is so special, and that tortures her even more than her spirits. "She was like a fancy present all wrapped up in flowered gift paper and tied with a pretty bow. But for all the festive wrapping, there was no telling what was underneath. You couldn't take her out. She might say or do or see anything" (Baby, 217). In the second novel, the year with Herman gives Lena confidence and understanding. In the end, she finds her place in the world of people and ghosts, in her natural environment, but it happens not until she finds her own identity and learns to trust her own feelings, secures her own "place".
So, Gothic elements in Tina Ansa's novels are multifaceted. They are not primarily meant to create "scary" environment that could ruin the protagonist, but rather they reveal inherent ties of humans and natural world. Lena understands that her presence in this world, as well as of all other people, is only temporary, while the natural world and the world of spirits will last long after the mortals have passed from the scene.
Ansa's novels are full of poetic images, music, and magic. The writer's "magical realism" makes them sound fresh and original. They richly contribute to the tradition, both Southern and African American, including older African and European elements as well, and at the same time they add a new dimension to all literary canons the author chooses to employ in her work.


  1. Ansa McElroy, Tina. Baby of the Family. - San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovitch, 1989
  2. Ansa McElroy, Tina. The Hand I Fan With. New York: Doubleday, 1996
  3. Conclin N.F., McCullum B., Wade M. The Culture of Southern Black Women. Approaches and Materials. - Montgomery: The University of Alabama Press, 1983
  4. Contemporary Southern Writers. Ed. by R. Matuz. - Detroit: St. James Press, 1999.
  5. Jung, Carl Gustav. Recollections, Dreams, Thoughts. Lvov: Initiative Press, 1998
  6. Reader's Companion to The Hand I Fan With by Tina McElroy Ansa. Books @ Random. The Hand I Fan With Readers' Group Companion.htm
  7. Southern Writers at Century's End. Ed. by J. J. Folks & J. A. Perkins. - Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1997.
  8. Walker, Alice. The Color Purple. - N.Y. & L.: Harcourt Bruce Jovanovich, Publishers, 1992.
  9. Zenkin, Sergey. French Gothic: In the Twilight of a Coming Epoch // Infernaliana. French Gothic Fiction of the 18th and 19th centuries. - Moscow: Publishing Center "Ladomir", 1999